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Senate Preparing Farm Bill Overhaul

Senate Preparing Farm Bill Overhaul

The Senate will take up the U.S. farm bill later this month, setting national agriculture and conservation policy for the first time since 2008.

Members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee have already started hearings on the massive bill to help the nation's farmers, but the heavy lifting won't start until the week of April 23.

Already, two senators from a farm-rich state are sounding alarms that the bill will be considerably smaller than from the current version.

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are both on the Agriculture Committee and will have a say in whatever legislation emerges. With Congress in a cost-cutting mood, however, Grassley last week began a series of town hall meetings across the state in which he began trying to prepare the public for a slimmed-down bill.

In an interview with RTTNews, Grassley said direct payments to farmers likely won't be in the bill, saving $15 billion right away.

Crop insurance should survive intact, he said, but any other income-support programs are "a little up in the air," he said. The conservation component of the bill will likely be shaved by about $4 million, but more flexibility will be given to farmers at the local level to decide how the money is spent. The size of the food stamp program may also be whittled, Grassley said.

"We're going to have a tough time keeping all the initiatives we have going, and there may even be some initiatives that are foregone," he said. "I want people to understand that I don't want to cut agriculture for the same reason some people do, because we shouldn't have a farm program.

"I want to have every program contribute to the lessening of the national debt, and I don't want agriculture to do anything that's not proportionate to any other program," Grassley added.

The farm bill is actually a two-part piece of legislation, about 70 percent of which is a nutrition/food stamp program. It is reauthorized every five years, and it is unique in the Senate because it is based on geography instead of politics. That means senators that usually wouldn't work together sometimes do, while senators that frequently cross the aisle sometimes cannot when it comes to the farm bill.

The current $284 billion bill, approved in 2008, expires this coming September. Grassley said the size of the farming part of the bill will depend on how much savings can be squeezed from the nutrition share of the legislation.

Grassley also wants to implement a hard limit on commodity payments to farmers, because he said large-scale farms - and sometimes even non-farmers -- are getting an unfair share of the payments as opposed to small or medium-sized farms. His idea, as announced last month, would be to set a cap of $250,000 for a married couple.

"We've got to tighten up in the business of farming," Grassley said. "We've got some people saying they're farmers who aren't farmers. The other thing is, even if you are a real farmer, I don't want 10 percent of the biggest farmers getting 70 percent of the benefits out of the farm program, and in the process getting bigger. I don't care if people get bigger, but I don't think the federal taxpayers should subsidize it."

Harkin, one of the Agriculture Committee's most senior members, is similarly alarmed at how small the farm bill could be. He said while senators from both parties are working cooperatively, the 2013 budget approved by the House a week and a half ago was drastically smaller.

"We know budget cuts to federal agriculture spending are coming. But now the House has passed a budget resolution written by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) calling for much deeper budget cuts to farm bill programs, using a rigid, fast-track 'reconciliation' process," Harkin told RTTNews.

"We plan to go ahead in the Senate, but the House's extreme and irresponsible action on the budget will make it far harder to send a new farm bill to the president this year, and pretty likely has ruined our chances for doing so."

The Senate has failed to reauthorize the farm bill before -- the current bill expired in 2007, for instance, and wasn't renewed until 2008.

Congress is currently on its annual Easter break, and is scheduled to reconvene on April 16th.

by RTT Staff Writer

For comments and feedback: editorial@rttnews.com

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